A loud thud yanked Catherine Barnet from her dreams. She sat up in bed, disoriented. Another thud, then footsteps came from her brother Robert’s room beside her own. A thin line of lamplight pushed beneath his bedroom door. Catherine climbed out of bed, fumbling for her robe, and made her way out into the hallway. The door to Robert’s bedroom was ajar. She pushed on it gently and caught sight of her brother frantically stuffing clothes into a bag. His dark hair was disheveled and dirty, his shirt half untucked. The sight of him made the muscles in her shoulders tense. When did I become so afraid of my own brother? Steeling herself, Catherine sucked in her breath and stepped into Robert’s bedroom. The floorboards creaked noisily beneath her. Her brother turned to glare at her, his eyes wild and flashing. “What are you doing?” Catherine asked. “What’s happening?” It felt like her voice was trapped in her throat. Robert sat on the bed to yank on his boots.
“Go back to bed.” He didn’t look at her. Instead, he marched to the window and peeked through the curtains. He cursed under his breath. Then he snatched the duffel bag from the bed and raced past Catherine. His footsteps thundered down the staircase. Catherine hurried to the window and pushed aside the curtain. In the pale glow of the street lamps, she could just make out the shape of a carriage standing outside the gates of their manor. Beside it stood three saddled horses. And there, marching down the path toward the front door were men dressed in smart crimson coats and long black riding boots.
Rifles were strapped to their backs. Soldiers. Her stomach knotted. She felt suddenly hot, then cold. Robert had certainly seen the soldiers. And now he was trying to escape. Catherine raced down the staircase, calling his name. She caught up to him just before he reached the door to the servants’ quarters. She snatched his arm. “They’re here for you, aren’t they?” She tried to force steadiness into her voice.
“The soldiers?” Robert shoved her away, sending her stumbling backwards. Pain shot down her back as she landed hard against the wall. A loud knock at the door echoed through the house. Catherine felt sickness rise in her throat. “Robert,” she coughed, “you can’t run. You can’t.” “I must,” he hissed, fixing her with wild, flashing eyes. Without speaking, he charged toward the door to the servants’ quarters. He yanked on the handle. Cursed again.
“Locked,” he hissed. “Fetch the key.” Catherine hesitated. Whatever her brother was running from, whatever he had done, surely running from the authorities was not going to help his cause. She never asked questions. In the two years since their father’s death, she had watched her older brother change from a loving young man into this fierce, wild-eyed creature. Often, he would stumble home late at night, waking her as he clattered drunkenly into his bedroom. He’d not appear until noon the next day, his eyes dull and his face dark with shadow. Once, she and Robert had been close. They’d spent their childhood by each other’s sides, exploring the manor grounds, rolling hoops, and reading stories by the fire.
They had held each other tightly as they’d mourned their mother, then, three years later, their father. But as the pressure of running the household had begun to weigh heavily on him, Robert had found solace in the bottle. Slowly, surely, the kind brother Catherine had known had begun to slip away. These days, he rarely spoke to her, unless it was to demand she fetch something for him or chastise her for her ineffectiveness. Catherine did not know who her brother was any more. She knew nothing of his life. But she had had her suspicions. In the past several months, Robert had seemed more secretive than usual. Angrier and even more withdrawn. Catherine had begun to suspect there was more to his late-night ventures than lengthy visits to the alehouses.
She suspected he was spending his time among men other than the fellow nobles he had met at university. She had said not a word to him. Robert Barnet was the Viscount of Bolmont, the master of the house. It was not his younger sister’s place to question him. But now there were soldiers at the door and panic in her brother’s eyes. Panic, Catherine was sure, that was splashed across her own face as well. Perhaps she ought not to have held her silence. “Catherine!” Robert bellowed. “Are you deaf? I said fetch the damn key!” There was such fire in her brother’s eyes that she didn’t stop to think. She raced into the parlor and snatched the spare keys from the drawer of a side table.
Another knock at the door, louder this time. Catherine could hear the footsteps of their aging butler shuffling down the staircase. She hurried back to the door of the servant’s quarters. “Robert,” she said, “please, you can’t. How will it look if you run? Whatever you have done, it—” Robert yanked the key from her hand and shoved it into the lock. He threw the door open and disappeared down the dark wooden staircase. “Robert!” she called, tears threatening in her throat. “Where will you go? What will you do?” He didn’t look back. Catherine watched him disappear, her heart thumping. Ought she go after him? Beg him to return? What point is there? He will never listen.
I’ve become nothing to him. She could hear distant voices at the front door. “We need to speak with Lord Bolmont regarding an extremely important matter.” “Yes sir,” said the butler. “Of course. One moment, please.” And then came a distant shout from somewhere on the manor grounds. Fast, heavy footsteps. Catherine raced to the window and pressed her forehead against the glass. She could see the inky figure of her brother tearing across the garden, two soldiers charging at him from the opposite direction.
Catherine clamped a hand over her mouth. Held her breath. And she watched as the soldiers dived upon her brother, before yanking him to his feet and throwing him into the back of their waiting wagon. Chapter 2 T he carriage was outside. Catherine knew she ought to hurry. She couldn’t keep Aunt Cornelia waiting. And yet she stood planted in the middle of her bedroom, unable to move. The room, like the rest of the house, had been emptied. The bed she had spent every night of her life in was gone, as was her writing desk, her wash stand, the velvet chaise beneath the window. The contents of her wardrobe and dressing table had been packed into trunks and carted off to Aunt Cornelia’s.
Soon, this house—the only home Catherine had ever known—would be sold. Bolmont Manor had been in her family for generations. And now it would become someone else’s. Someone else would look out her bedroom window and see the gardens blooming in the spring time. There would be new voices around the hearth in the parlor. The graves of strangers would begin to appear in her family’s burial plot. What would her father think, Catherine wondered, if he knew his precious manor was about to fall into someone else’s hands? At Robert’s trial, the truth of his crimes had come spilling out. It had been far worse than Catherine had dared imagine. Allegations of theft and assault had been bad enough, but she had learned her brother had not been acting alone. Instead, he had become embroiled in a north London crime syndicate, had had his hands in everything from burglary to the distribution of smuggled liquor.
Robert had looked pale and uncertain as he’d taken the stand. His head was bowed and his shoulders hunched. He looked nothing like the strong, self-confident young man he had once been. He had found himself deep in gambling debt, Robert had claimed. Out of desperation, he had stolen a gold pocket watch from a fellow nobleman at one of the gentlemen’s clubs. His light fingers had been noticed by the syndicate’s boss, who had threatened to turn him over to the authorities if he did not lend his light fingers to their cause. Robert seemed to shrink further into himself as a barrage of questions were flung at him. Who were these men? What were their names? Where can we find them? Nameless men, of course. Men who disappeared back into the fabric of the city when the morning came. Impossible to find.
As she’d sat in the courtroom listening to her brother’s miserable testimony, Catherine had felt a great swell of shame. Shame at her brother, shame at herself. Her brother had been caught in the net of a crime syndicate and she hadn’t known of any of his activities. Had she not been paying enough attention to him? Had there been signs, clues she might have missed? Perhaps if she had given him more support in those dreadful months after their father’s death, he might never have felt the need to lose himself in the gambling halls so regularly. But she had not been attentive, had not seen the clues. And now her family’s fine name was irreparably tarnished. Though she had told no one of Robert’s arrest, the news had spread anyway. When she had tried to attend her friend Elizabeth’s piano soiree as though nothing had happened, she had been inundated with a flood of whispers and pitying eyes. She’d spent five badlyplayed minuets blinking back tears of shame. Catherine knew she would forever be known as the sister of a criminal.
How could she ever show her face in society again? The ton would tear her apart. She knew all chances of her finding a husband had been destroyed the moment those soldiers had marched up to her front door. But she had pushed those thoughts away and sat in the courtroom with her head up and her shoulders back, despite the color that was rising in her cheeks. She wanted Robert to see that whatever he had done, he would have her support. Criminal or no, he was still her brother. The verdict had come as no surprise. Robert himself had admitted his involvement with the crime syndicate. Catherine had watched with tears in her eyes as he was carted off to Newgate. A prison sentence, she told herself, was the best possible outcome. She knew Robert had been lucky not to face transportation to the colonies.
Even luckier not to have been led straight to the gallows. But it didn’t stop her tears from spilling. As he was led from the courtroom, Robert looked back over his shoulder at her. Catherine tried to flash him a tiny smile; a smile that told him things would be all right, a smile that told him she would love him no matter what. But Robert’s face was expressionless, his eyes hard. The sight of him left her insides cold. Catherine knew she could no longer deny it. The kind, loving brother she had known had died along with their father. She turned at the sound of gentle footsteps behind her. Aunt Cornelia was standing in the doorway of the bedroom, dressed in a dark cloak and a bonnet decorated with at least half an ostrich.
She tossed her head, making the feathers dance, then pressed a papery hand to Catherine’s shoulder. “Come on now, my girl. No point standing around here all day.” Catherine nodded. She knew Aunt Cornelia was right. Dwelling on the past would not fix anything. Best I accept this is the way things are now. And so she sucked in her breath and walked down the staircase, listening to the sharp click of her shoes against marble. Her footsteps echoed around the still house, reminding her that her life here was over. She made her way out through the entrance hall, swallowing the pain that was stabbing at her throat.
Casting one final glance over her shoulder, Catherine pulled the door closed on her old home and followed her aunt into the carriage. * * * Catherine watched out the window as the whitewashed, manicured streets rolled by. She could feel her aunt’s eyes on her. Pitying eyes. She kept her gaze fixed out the window. She did not want pity. Pity was a stark reminder of all she had lost. Two days after her brother’s trial, Catherine had written to her aunt, telling her all that had happened. It had been an act borne of necessity; with Robert in prison, they had no means of keeping the household together. The staff—many of whom Catherine had known her entire life—would be released from their positions and the house sold to pay off Robert’s debts.
Besides Robert, Aunt Cornelia and her son Edmund were the only family Catherine had left. There had been a part of her that had wanted to keep Robert’s misdemeanors a secret, even from her aunt and cousin. But soon she would be homeless. What choice did she have but to write to them, begging them to take her in like some hopeless street urchin? Catherine would not have been surprised if Cornelia had sought to distance herself from the whole situation. Her aunt was the widow of the Viscount of Featherstone, and she prided herself on upholding her husband’s good name. But a letter had come back almost immediately. In her usual forthright tone, Aunt Cornelia had instructed Catherine to have her belongings packed at once. She had expressed her surprise to hear of Robert’s imprisonment, a thing Catherine found at once both endearing and infuriating. She knew it more than likely that gossip-hungry Cornelia Spicer had heard about her nephew’s fall from grace the moment the soldiers had dragged him from the manor. As per the letter, a coach had appeared outside Bolmont Manor at the stroke of three p.
m. the following day, carrying Catherine’s furred and feathered spectacle of an aunt. “I’ve had a room prepared for you,” Aunt Cornelia said as the carriage rattled and thudded through the gates of her Chelsea manor. “A lovely little room overlooking the garden. I’ve no lady’s maid for you, but I’ve a young kitchen hand who has agreed to help you at your toilette.” Catherine managed a faint smile. A kitchen maid helping her at her toilette seemed the best someone like her could hope for. “Thank you, Aunt,” she managed. “That’s very kind of you.”